Thursday, January 12, 2017

The First Art History: into the Modern Era

Key Terms: Modernism, protorenaissance, Realism, idealism, abstract, representational, non-representational, fresco 
Form, formal analysis, Elements and Principles of art

Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Annunciation and Two Saints, 1333
Tempera on wood, 6'4" x 10' Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (625), image source wikipedia

Gothic Painting (1280-1515)

Together with his assistant and brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi, Simone Martini created an altarpiece with the annunciation to the virgin that serves as a transition between the traditions of the Romanesque and Byzantine style, noted for their insistent flatness of figure and ground and their repetition of iconographic standards, and the early Renaissance, when artists began to explore methods of deepening the spatial qualities of their work and simultaneously to deepen the psychological complexities of their figures and subjects.

In this altarpiece, the master, Simone Martini, likely painted the central panel of the triptych, leaving the Saint portraits (Saint Ansano and Saint Giulitta) to his studio assistant Memmi.  I'll focus on the central scene.

The angel Gabriel swoops into the frame, his wings still extended, his robes hanging in the air about him as they catch up with his arrival, and confronts the startled Mary with his bold utterance, "Hail, full of grace, the lord is with thee." Mary seems to shrink and twist from the startling arrival of the angel, but retains her perfect grace

So different from Byzantine representations, which build one,
Pietro Cavalini, Annunciation, Basilica di Santa Maria in Trasteveri, 1291, Rome. Source
to the next
Jacopo Torriti, Annunciation, Santa Maria Maggiore, 1295, Rome. Source
upon fixed methods and styles for representing particular scenes such that they become icons much more than artworks. Indeed, the difference between an icon and an artwork will help us define the difference between Medieval and Renaissance ideas of art, and, in fact, between pre-modern and early modern ideas.

Martini's painting demonstrates the major characteristics of the Gothic style in painting. Highly refined, and with precise use of line and an often exaggerated elegance, Gothic painting puts a new emphasis on naturalism.  You can see this most literally in the way that Martini works to represent three dimensional depth on a two dimensional surface. Once we have ceased admiring the exquisite natural affect of the marble painted on the floor, we can note that the floor actually recedes back into space, such that the vase of lilies, so often present as symbol of Mary's purity, can actually rest without fear of spilling over.

Though Martini retains the tradition (perhaps in order to remain in business) of an abundance of glittering gold, he softens the effect of the halo and manages to achieve a quality of naturalism even despite the preponderance of gold by carving the words of the angel's message, the first words of the annunciation, into the air between angel and virgin, creating a reason for the the effect of unearthly glow.
Coming from the angel's gently parted lips, we read the words from left to right as a  link between this unwelcome messenger and the virgin, who arches away from them as if from an arrow with all the energy her virginal propriety and the firm back of her throne will allow.  The message unites the the two halves of the 'canvas' and the two figures powerfully across a great divide of gold and strangely spiny lilies; the words become the center of the painting as the message provides the core  of the  story of the Annunciation.

The Father of Art History, Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first book that resembles a modern art history, The Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,  in 1550, thought little of Byzantine art, or the 'Greek Manner.' By Greek, he meant not the art of classical greece, which he admired greatly, but of recent Greek Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire and Byzantine style, where such strict adherence to tradition prevailed that it seemed art could not move in any new direction. He saw evidence that this manner might disappear in the Italian painter of Icons Cimabue, about whom he wrote:

CIMABUE (circa 1240-circa 1302) Vasari's Lives of the Artists

THE GREAT FLOOD of misfortunes, by which poor Italy had been afflicted and overwhelmed, had not only reduced to ruins all buildings of note throughout the land, but what was of far more importance, had caused an utter lack of the very artists themselves. At this time, when the supply seemed entirely exhausted, in the year 1240, by the will of God, there was born in the city of Florence, Giovanni, surnamed Cimabue, of the noble family of that name, who was to shed the first light on the art of painting. He, as he grew, being judged by his father and others to possess a fine acute intellect, was sent to Santa Maria Novella to be instructed in letters by a relative of his who taught grammar to the novices of that convent.

But instead of attending to his lessons, Cimabue spent all the day in painting on his books and papers,men, horses, houses, and such things. To this natural inclination fortune was favorable, for certain painters of Greece, who had been summoned by the rulers of Florence to restore the almost forgotten art of painting in the city, began at this time to work in the chapel of the Gondi in Santa Maria Novella; and Cimabue would often escape from school and stand all day watching them, until his father and the painters themselves judging that he was apt for painting, he was placed under their instruction. Nature, however, aided by constant practice, enabled him greatly to surpass both in design and coloring the masters who had taught him. For they, never caring to advance in their art, did everything not in the good manner of ancient Greece, but after the rude manner of those times


In this first introduction to Vasari's style and content, what do you notice? 
Can you detect any hints of our modern ideas of Art that you have not seen in this class so far?

Cimabue, Virgin and Child Enthroned (11-29),   Giotto, Virgin and Child Enthroned(11-30),

In the shepherd-turned-painter Giotto di Bondone, Vasari found the first artist to shake off the 'rude Greek Manner' (the Byzantine style.) He writes:

GIOTTO (1267-1337) Vasari's Lives of the Artists

Giotto, Lamentation, 1304, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) (good pictures here)

NOW IN THE YEAR 1276, in the country of Florence, about fourteen miles from the city, in the village of Vespignano, there was born to a simple peasant named Bondone a son, to whom he gave the name of Giotto, and whom he brought up according to his station. And when he had reached the age of ten years, showing in all his ways though still childish an extraordinary vivacity and quickness of mind, which made him beloved not only by his father but by all who knew him, Bondone gave him the care of some sheep. And he leading them for pasture, now to one spot and now to another,was constantly driven by his natural inclination to draw on the stones or the ground some object in nature, or something that came into his mind. One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.
There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner ofthe Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily. Giotto painted among others, as may be seen to this day in the chapel of the Podestà's Palace at Florence, Dante Alighieri, his contemporary and great friend, and no less famous a poet than Giotto was a painter.

More Definitions
By now most students will have have a good historical definition of Byzantine. Above, in this post, you  find a definition of Gothic Painting, which Vasari does not touch on specifically, but rather includes in his category, "the rude greek manner,"   which can stand in, here for the Renaissance opinion of the Byzantine Period, in particular, but all of Medieval Art. Make sure you feel comfortable restating those in a phrase or two. (More briefly: feel comfortable defining Byzantine art, Gothic painting, and the Renaissance opinion of the state of painting from 300-1400 ce.)

After training with Cimabue, Giotto went out on his own and always retained his boyish playfulness, according to the story of the perfect circle.

Giotto " was called to Assisi by Fra Giovanni di Muro, at that time general of the order of S. Francis, and painted in fresco in the upper church thirty-two stories from the life and deeds of S. Francis, which brought him great fame. It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter's. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, "Here is the drawing." But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, "Am I to have no other drawing than this?" "This is enough and too much," replied Giotto, "send it with the others and see if it will be understood." The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, "You are rounder than the O of Giotto," which proverb is not only good because of the accasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, "round," meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.
So the Pope made him come to Rome, and he painted for him in S. Peter's, and there never left his hands work better finished; wherefore the Pope, esteeming himself well served, gave him six hundred ducats of gold, besides having shown him so many favours that it was spoken of through all Italy."

Vasari tells several other funny tales on Giotto, some of which may possibly be true. The one I like best:
" It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough."
quoted from this site, at Fordham, where the full text can be found.

If you like this subject,  Read this article about perfect circles.

If you like Giotto, look at and read about many images from Giotto's Arena Chapel (Scrovegni Chapel) at this site.

Key Work: Giotto di Bondone, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1305-6, fresco (11-31 & 32)

Key Work: Giotto di Bondone, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1305-6, exterior
Key Work: Giotto di Bondone, Marriage at Cana, Raising of Lazarus, Lamentation, Resurrection, and 'Noli Mi Tangere' Arena/Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1305-6 fresco Terms: Fresco, Grisaille, renaissance

Giselbertus, Last Judgment, ~1130

Giotto, Last Judgment, Scrovegni Chapel, 1306 more info at web gallery

Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation & Scrovegni chapel

Petrus Christus, Goldsmith (12-7), 1449, Netherlandish, oil on oak, 

  Rogier van der Weyden, Deposition (12-6), Belgian, 1442, oil on panel, part of an altarpiece

  Bill Viola, Emergence

Giorgio Vasari, Self-Portrait, ~1566
History remembers Vasari most as the father of Art History, but he was also a 'Renaissance Man', a successful painter, architect, and urban planner.
The rather mediocre sixteenth century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, fortunately, proved a remarkable writer and gatherer of tales true and legendary. His Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, proves interesting to read, a vital source for the study of Renaissance Art History, and, really, is the first Art History book, for it combines life stories of the artists, description of their training and methods, and ekphrasis, or eloquent description of their important works.  

Giorgio Vasari's painting of The Mutilation of Saturn by Uranus, 6th century

More on Vasari, should you want it.

    questions for thought
  1. Who was Giorgio Vasari?

  2. What elements did he include in his Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors, and Architectsthe elements that comprise the bulk of art history today?

  3. What is a Renaissance man? What is Renaissance humanism?

  4. How does Vasari suggest that Duccio and Cimabue built the bridge that Giotto Galloped across into the Renaissance, leading the way for the great triumvirate of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael?

      questions for thought

  1. List several distinctions between Medieval and Renaissance art.

  2. What features in the Lamentation serve to distinguish further between the interests of medieval and Renaissance Artists? If you’d like more insights on this, you can check out the Smarthistory podcast on the painting.

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